I fall in love with sneakers on. Not in a kinky shoes-on-in-the-bedroom way. As a relatively recent convert to the cult of running, I find that I see places differently when I lace up my Mizuno Wave Riders, take a quick look at Google Maps, and head out for a run. I see more. I see differently. And it’s not just the sweat pouring into my eyes that changes the view.
My first experience in travel running (as opposed to running travel, when you go somewhere in order to run), was in Hanoi, Vietnam. I parlayed vicious jet lag and an Old Quarter hotel into early morning jogs around Hoan Kiem Lake. While fruit and vegetable vendors unloaded their wares from bamboo baskets and the neighborhood’s winding side streets sprung to life, I cued up Regina Spektor for slow loops around the central Hanoi lake in perfectly crisp November weather. And far from being alone, I had company in the form of elderly Vietnamese exercise groups who gaped openly at the white girl trotting in circles while they wielded fans and swords in graceful arcs or did aerobics to directions broadcast over loud speakers. By day three, the stares had turned to smiles, waves or total ambivalence. I had become part of the landscape. It was fabulous.
When I returned a year later, it was to the suburbs of Hanoi, where my runs took me through tiny villages on the edge of the ever-expanding city. Just a few blocks from major roads and massive high-rises, people seemed to be holding onto small-town lives. Getting lost on their narrow streets among motorbikes and uniformed school kids (with zero ability to ask for directions) was one of the highlights of my visit.
Just this month I was reminded why I always make room for running shoes in my suitcase, when I laced up for a few miles in Las Galeras, Dominican Republic. A fishing town quite literally at the end of the road on the Samaná Peninsula (park when the pavement ends and get a whole grilled fish from the tía who runs the show at the beachside restaurant), Las Galeras is still relatively free from megaresorts that dominate the country’s more trafficked locales thanks in large part to its distance from just about everywhere. Between dining cliffside and snorkeling over sea urchins the size of basketballs and sunny in front of clear Caribbean waters, I snuck in a morning run.
I started roadside, passing small hotels and private homes set amid lush tropical landscaping. When the street stopped, a woman manning a small snack stand pointed me up, away from the beach and along a cratered dirt road that narrowed and grew more cratered as it climbed. I passed a construction site, a bed and breakfast and a private home where a woman sang to kids running in the yard. The road disintegrated into dirt and rocks, and a lone motorbike picked through the mess, moving at about my same speed. The vegetation grew thicker and the whine of insects filled the thick air. I started to wonder just how far I was planning to go.
At the top of the hill, the beach just barely visible below, I rounded a curve to find a trio of horses blocking my way. They were healthy, well cared for and free to wander. But they didn’t run. They just stood and stared back as I approached. And then in the grass just off the path, I saw why they stared: a small caramel-colored foal lay in the grass next to its mother.
I turned around shortly after, soaked in sweat, my legs turning to jelly and so elated that the rest of the run passed by in a flash. I didn’t put my running shoes back on the rest of the trip. But it didn’t matter. In four miles I’d fallen in love.